Friday, June 18, 2010

Talking Race

I had a racialized childhood. Racial identity and awareness was a major part of my upbringing, in my case because I was growing up as a highly visible member of a tiny minority: white Americans in 1960s Korea. I couldn't escape noticing that being American (which was assumed based on my being white) was different and conspicuous, because people called attention to it nearly every day.

As a result, I think about race all the time. If I'd been raised in the States, it probably wouldn't be the case. Especially if we'd remained in our family home in New Hampshire, I would've blended in and would likely have had few experiences that called attention to my own race or my experience of it.

I bring this up in relation to the current lively discussion about race in children's books, much of the latest talk in response to Elizabeth Bluemle's terrific PW post, "The Elephant in the Room." There is nothing new about this discussion; writers and scholars of color have been making similar observations and raising similar concerns about the children's book field in a continuous unbroken chorus for decades (see Rudine Sims Bishop, to mention just one voice).

It's an unfortunate truth that often the white community sits up and takes notices when a white person speaks, in a way they never do when the point is being made by a person of color. But it's still useful for white people to speak up on the subject of race, particularly because they have complete freedom not to.

As the majority and the norm, white people always have the option
of simply being themselves. They can say things like, "I just want to be seen as an individual," or "I'm not comfortable with labels; I'm just human." The assumption underlying these statements is that anyone is free to make the same choice. But the essence of minority identity is that the majority defines you by your difference from them.

Growing up in Korea, I might have wished, "I don't want to be seen as American, I just want to be myself." But no matter how I insisted on it, every Korean who encountered me was first going to notice - and to some extent define me and their expectations of me by - my race.

A constant barrage of expectations that
you will embody and represent your race can be exhausting. (Because the status of white Americans in Korea was highly privileged, my experience of being a minority was overwhelmingly positive. The worst I had to endure was regular requests to "please speak English conversation with me," and occasionally being chased by crowds of children yelling, "Hello-yah!")

Book creators of color, like all people of color in this country, are often consigned to a racialized world. Editors expect manuscripts and art directors assign images about cultural experiences, not fantasy worlds. Sales reps only pitch their books in communities of people who look like them. Booksellers shelve their titles in special sections, presumably only of interest to people from the same ethnic group. And they are expected to be continuously concerned with and to lead the charge on issues of race (while being criticized for doing so).

If those of us in the white community can pick up the ball and, with fierceness, persistence and creativity, make concerns about lack of diversity in children's book our issue, it might create a little slack so some of the rest of us can "just be ourselves."

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